We had to take two cars because I went to NY with the kids first and when my husband was done with work, he drove up (or down, I'm not a compass I don't know) and met us. So when it was time to go home, I was driving solo again. This is fine for most people but for me, highway driving is a series of panic attacks. I don't know why my throat feels like it's sealing up and my insides want to be my outsides but that's just how my mind is. I think it has to do with how I take in information: quickly. I'm always aware of the scenery, cars around me, how fast I'm driving, what each child is doing in the car- but not at different levels of awareness. All of it is at the forefront of my mind's eye and my brain probably doesn't appreciate that which leads to cerebral shenanigans.
Logically, I know all is well even though my mind is blipping like a scratched record so I no longer need to pull the car over. On Sunday as I was driving back home and feeling like my neurons were fighting amongst themselves, I began thinking about Glen Falls and writing a story. It was a four hour drive so I had enough time to plan a very detailed story about a weird town, encampment rather, with a disturbing secret.
The first chapter is below:
Opal let out a final heaving sob. As she placed a trembling hand on her swollen abdomen, her world collapsed in on itself. The light of hope that she’d been cupping her hands around for so long, protecting from wind and reality, flickered and then died and she felt the harsh chill of utter abandonment.
The only sound was the soft rain patting steadily against the flooded prairie. A hand clutched her shoulder.
“We must leave this place.”
She knew her father was right but even as she stared at the mound of fresh earth where John lay, she couldn’t move. She felt as drawn to him now now as she had the first time she saw him across her family’s cherry orchard four years ago. Four years ago. It felt like a lifetime. But everything before The Falling did. Who could have imagined that instead of spending the months before she was to bring their young into the world, she’d be saying a barbaric goodbye to her husband in a muddy ravine. Who could have imagined that the entire life they knew could have deteriorated into a daily nightmare?
“He was going to build her a bassinet from the dead oak,” she whispered to no one in particular as the rain formed rivulets with her hot tears. John had been a gifted carpenter, which was why her father had hired him to help him raise the new barn. He said he was going to give the mealy oak tree that had died three summer back a chance to see new life. As a child she’d spent hours swinging from its branches by rope swing, hoping that with each skinny legged pump she’d finally fly right off into the sky giving those fruit-stealing robins the shock of a lifetime. Each time her feet kicked into the sun, it felt more and more possible.
Opal was sure the small bump under her fraying dress was home to a daughter. She could feel it and saw the child in her dreams. Never her face, but the gentle outline of her chin and John’s mischievous eyes under long black lashes.
“We must go,” her father whispered again, this time more urgently and Opal defied her heart by standing. Her knees buckled under the weight of the moment but her father was there and caught her in his arms. Even with her own little girl growing inside her, she was still his child. He hated to rush her through the grieving but knew that dark would be upon them soon and they had to find somewhere safe to stop for the night. After The Falling there would be no rest of mind, but they had to let their muscles fall. And then there was his wife, Carolyn, who even though she tried to hide it, was growing sicker by the day. Her cough started mild enough, but over the past few days had taken on a deep guttural tone that filled him with hopelessness. Flus were easily cured in the old days with an herbal panacea, hearty root vegetable stew, a warm room and plenty of sleep but these times were different. People lived in the damp and cold and household afflictions had released the spirits of more than one able-bodied man.
Opal wandered, red and empty-eyed, over to where her mother sat on a moss-covered tree stump watching her with a face full of tears for her child in the throws of loss. Carolyn extended her arms but as she did another cough rose in her throat. Her efforts to stifle it proved futile. After the long fit passed, Opal and her mother both looked down at the blood on her sleeve in resigned terror. It’s happening again. The sickness that took John and swept through so many encampments would not leave until it had conquered them all.
Silently, the two women stood, leaning against each other. One sick of heart, one sick of body, they trudged through the wet field while Thomas, the last man standing, led the way.
Luck took pity on them and they found an abandoned half shed. With their backs to the whistling wind, they huddled close and tried to sleep, knowing that morning would creep up before they were ready. Nobody asked about food. Their supplies had been exhausted days earlier. Now they were just waiting for whatever wanted to take them to do its work.
A dog barked and Opal woke with a start. Perhaps it was a wolf. The Falling had turned even the most docile animals into wild beasts making both equally worthy of fear. She sat up to see her father already in fighter’s stance, his attention turned into the woods. He turned back and his eyes told her to be absolutely quiet. Her mother was leaning heavily into her and Opal gently prodded her arm to wake her. No response. A shiver of fear ran down her center and she put one hand over her mouth. She shook her mother harder this time causing Carolyn’s body to slowly slide down and slump into the grass. Opal’s hands flew over her mouth as she screamed without making a sound. Before she had a chance to look up she heard a growl and her father’s startled yell as he hit the ground. The wolf’s filthy paws were positioned squarely on his chest and his top teeth were exposed in a deep snarl. She locked eyes with the beast and her horror reached fever pitch before it subsided into nothingness. Before she too went into the grass she heard something she hadn’t heard since The Falling first began those months ago: a gunshot.
Opal dreamed that it was the day she met John. He was running to her through the orchard. She smiled and dropped the clothespins she was holding into the bucket. There was something strange about his face. He looked scared, frantic. He was screaming something, three words over and over, but she couldn’t make them out. He was almost to her when finally she understood: “You’re not safe!”
A drop of warm water trickled down her cheek. Someone was patting her brow with a cloth. She struggled to shake the sleep out of her body.
A unfamiliar female voice pushed her arm back down on the large bed, “Hey, hey. Rest. You’re safe now.”
With that Opal remembered her father, the wolf, and…oh my god, her mother.
“Where is my mother? Where is my father?” She threw the sheets off of her and spun around trying to take in her strange surroundings and preparing herself for the feeling of the wolf’s razor flaws tearing her flesh. The first bed she’d slept in in months brought her no comfort, nor did the room. If The Falling had taught her anything it was that survival depended on staying alert.
“Opal, please,” the women took her arm again. Opal stared, startled that she knew her name.
She couldn’t be more than 21. She had black tight curly hair pushed down by a white cotton handkerchief and wore a brown, sleeved housedress and a tan apron. Shoes. She was wearing proper house shoes. Nobody has those anymore. Maybe The Falling had all been a dream.
The woman spoke again, “Your name is Opal, right? Your father told us.” At the mention of her father Opal sat down. The room stopped spinning.
“My husband, Patton, killed the wolf. He saved you. He’s very useful.” Opal ignored the woman’s childish beam.
“And my mother?”
“She’s ill, but we’re tending to her. How long were you wandering for?”
Opal, now slightly less panicked remembered John. He was gone. If these people had found them a week earlier….
The woman recognized that this stranger was in no way to start answering questions. She walked over to the dresser and picked up a tray. Opal could smell the lentil carrot soup before she saw it and the ravenous hunger that had been kind enough to lay dormant for weeks, exploded.
“Thank you,” were the only words she managed to mumble as she poured spoonful after spoonful into her mouth until the bowl had just pale stripes of orange broth left in it.
She looked up to her host, bashful at how quickly she’d eaten and tried to remember what manners were. “Your name…I didn’t ask your name.”
The black-haired woman smiled, “Abeline.”
Opal took in the sparsely decorated but homey room- a dresser, bed with pillow and quilt, a mirror? How did people still live like this after The Falling?
“You’re wondering where you are, aren’t you? And how we have all of this,” Abeline sat down next to Opal who ignored the urge to put distance between her and this friendly, but still new person.
Just then someone knocked and before either could say anything the bound-log door creaked open.
Abeline stood quickly and smoothed her apron.
“Opal, I’d like to formally introduce you to the Mayor.”
Heavy hide boots slowly made their way into the room. He wore thick miner’s pants and a wool hunting coat spotted with fresh blood. Opal lifted her eyes and was shocked to see his face. He was younger than Abeline. 17, 18 at the very most.
He grinned confidently and held out his hand.
“I’m Glen. Welcome to Glen Falls.”